It was Republicans who were at the cutting edge of list enhancement in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Karl Rove and other consultants honed the use of commercial data for micro-targeting.
But Democrats pioneered the next step: outsourcing voter file assembly and maintenance. A small group of private companies – Catalist, Voter Activation Network and NGP (the latter two of which have since merged to form NGP VAN) – were able to enhance Democratic voter lists using information obtained from groups that can accept unlimited money that candidates and parties are barred from receiving.
Right now, the GOP has the advantage with their restrictive voter ID laws in states such as Texas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, with an estimated 5 million voters to be disenfranchised by these voter ID laws. A greater focus on voter targeting by the Republicans through digital social tools will heighten the voter disenfranchisement in key races that will determine the makeup of state legislatures, the House and the Senate, if not the White House itself.
So how can Democrats counteract that? In order for Democrats to keep up their digital edge against the GOP, I'd recommend a more focused digital strategy to find qualified voters that can make all the difference in competitive primary and general election races. There's been a lot of focus on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for good reason. Keyword campaigns can be built to identify different voters by interest, gender, and age, and ads then can be run targeting these voters to visit your website, or to check out your video, petition site, and so on.
This form of advertising strategy can work for Democrats is if they target potential voters that visit their website, and then follow up with retargeting ads two weeks later or a couple of months later in time for primary or general election races. The ads being run could be a volunteer sign-up, sending e-mail blasts on specific issues, and a reminder for people to vote before election day. Many advertising platforms allow for frequency caps, so people wouldn't be inundated with non-stop ads.
Retargeting ads are but one component of advertising strategies that Democrats should have in their toolbox going into the 2012 elections. Even with all the digital tools in place, nothing replaces fieldwork in getting qualified voters to the polls on Election day, but having the data in place will be crucial for that.
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